Between the Lines #43 min read

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There’s a popular idiom that the truth is stranger than fiction. In this absurd current political moment, though, the idiom has transmuted into a writer joke about how, if you sent in a recap of the last year as a story or script, an editor would laugh, cross it all out, and throw it in the bin. It’s too over-the-top to be believable.

And yet, these events—it doesn’t matter which one you picture; they’re all crazy—are real. They are happening, they are plausible, and the result is that we feel “the news” pressing to us more closely and immediately than ever before.

It won’t surprise anyone to know that this is affecting writing—even fiction writing. When the unbelievable happens, when what was previously subtext becomes text, metaphors get tricky. Subtle analogues in speculative fiction start to more literally resemble the truth (like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). It feels like there’s very little room left for the sort of gentle implication found in the writing we like best.

For fiction writers hoping to be “political” with their work, the question becomes: How directly and literally should we incorporate into our work what we’re seeing play out on the news? What do we do when world events start to out-speed our imaginations?

As agents with slush piles, we’re seeing the first attempts at an answer from writers. We have pitches for hundreds of manuscripts featuring bloviating fascist world leaders, giant tech companies controlling everyone’s daily lives, perilous climate situations, endless war. All of these manuscripts are dispensing with nuance or pretense in order to point big, red arrows at a problem they’re seeing in the real world.

And look, we get it: these times feel deeply political to many writers in a way that they perhaps didn’t in years past. We all want our work to comment on something real, to show everyone what crucial point we’re missing that could get us more quickly to the ending where the good guys win. But in this nearly literal method for grappling with present-day fact, we forget a simple truth that could liberate us from the temptation to be the one to say something in such overt terms:

All writing is political.

It’s worth repeating once more, so say it with us: all writing is political. All the way from realist domestic dramas to high fantasies set far away from the here and now, storytelling is innately political because, quite simply, it engages with truths about our lived experiences as people. You can’t exist outside the political circumstances of your world, and the same is true of your characters in theirs, no matter how much or how little overt attention is paid to those circumstances.

For writers, this should be as freeing as it is powerful. If you’re trying to write with a political bent or trying to communicate a message about our current time in your fiction, you can do it without the 1:1 headline analogues, lectures, or didacticism. Everyone hates being preached at or hit over the head with your Themes and Beliefs. But, tell us a good story in a well-rendered world? We’ll have no choice but to feel the politics of lived experience peek through. And we’ll probably enjoy it.

If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t throw away subtle and measured thought. Last year, the push away from nuance overwhelmed us; we couldn’t look away from the news and social media. In 2018, though, we can use this truth. Our fiction doesn’t need to be ripped from the headlines, or stare straight at the Big Problem (whatever that Big Problem is).

We can, instead, write the most authentic stories in the best way we can tell them and trust that our characters are having just as hard a time avoiding politics as we are. It will be there in the stories, we promise. And, as readers, we will see it just fine, too.

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